Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Technical Topic: Before the Seat of the Pants

One of several unprofitable debates in writing circles is whether it's better to 'Outline and Plan' or better to be a 'Pantser' which is somewhat jumping off a cliff, flapping yer wings, and discovering what the story is about as you fly along.

There are successful writers playing both sides of this field.  They probably do other things that involve numerology or sacrifice of radishes or wearing funny hats or drinking coffee on the Rue Satin-Michel or sitting down to write naked,
though it is to be hoped no one tries all of these simultaneously.

Lots of different working styles.  All the methods have practitioners who build story just fine. All of them are 'right'.

But before the Seat of the Pants . . . before The Extensive Outline . . how do we first approach story?

If I were handing out advice wholesale, (because, for instance, I didn't want to buckle down to work this morning,)  I'd say to start writing before you know the story.

What it is --

If you are inclined to the vice of writing, most likely you 'see' scattered, random scenes in the story right from the beginning. The bits come to you while you're falling asleep or mowing the lawn or walking the dog.

dog much like the dog you might walk

These vignettes are a gift from your subconscious.
Don't be shy. Take the gift, already.  Write the scenes out.

Of course, you're going to throw away most of this material. The beautiful scene is going to fall into backstory or it'll be off-stage or it simply won't happen. 
But some of these scenes make it into the final manuscript.  When they do, it's great.  This is your primal story stuff. Your first visualization. Theses scenes paint your world.  

Before you face that clean, empty screen with 'Chapter One', centered . . . catch as much as you can of the vivid and unexpected that bubbles up from the story yeasting in your mind.
Write the scenes, because they're freely given.  As close as we get to 'inspiration'.
And because they give you momentum to write.  They toss you into the current of story.

Look -- There's lots of stuff involved with starting a new project. You're putting down notes; doing research; building an outline; talking about story; planning; creating character sketches, gathering ideas --

plotbunny at work

But these are static activities.
They aren't 'writing'.

'Writing' is immersion in the storytime with all its thought, feeling, motive, color, dialog, hitting tigers over the head, hot breath in the throat, dialog, walruses, and, y'know, dialog. 'Writing' is grabbing the scene as it runs past and riding it.

These lagniappe scenes toss you in the story river.  They sweep you along.  Now you're swimming.  You're part of the story, not an observer.

Second advice is to build your characters' pasts before you necessarily know what they'll be up to in your current story.

I'm not talking about making a 'character profile' that sets down facts, though you can do that too. I'm saying to imagine little stories that happened to the characters before the WIP.

To take a case:
Sebastian and Adrian are weaving down a street in London, drunk. Singing. The action of the story opens.
But I knew where they'd been before the reader sees them in the alley in London, I had imagined other scenes of their lives. I knew how they'd met, years earlier in Paris, and nearly killed each other.  I knew how they'd scuttled together out of France with the Secret Police two jumps behind.

So that's the second advice. Maybe you know what lies ahead of your character in the WIP, maybe not,
but he can walk into Line One, Page One, Chapter One, already in motion from his own story.


  1. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Oh, please tell me that story of Sebastian and Adrian meeting in Paris years earlier is going to be in Adrian's story! I'm sure the Jess in all of us would love to know about that one!

  2. I have definitely written stories where the only thing I had in my head at the beginning was the final scene that I was working towards.

  3. @ anon --

    It does not, alas, show up in Adrian's story.

    That's the problem with backstory. I know all this stuff happened. I can see it. I know the dialog. But I don't think it'll ever fit into a story anywhere.

    Not saying never, but . . .

  4. @ ros --

    Do you mentally 'work with' the story before you start writing it, or do you just go in cold?

    It's hard for me to immerse myself in the scenes till I can 'hear' the POV characters. Till then, I feel the writing is stiff and unnatural.

    Sometimes it takes a while to get there. *sigh*
    Any tricks I can come up with, I do.

  5. I'm like you on needing to know the characters. But I do often find the best way to get to know them is to write them and see what they do and how they react and speak and so on. Sometimes I go in almost completely cold, with maybe just a single line, or a word, or a thought and then write and see what I've got at the end of an hour or two. It's fun to see what characters emerge and what their story is. It doesn't always end up with a workable story, of course, but more often than not I find there's a spark of a usable idea and occasionally there's something that flows into a whole story. I do find that I need some mulling time between that first flush of writing, which usually ends up with a few thousand words, and then working up the rest. In the mulling time I'm mainly getting to know the characters in my head though sometimes I'm also thinking a bit about plot. I'm definitely not writing an outline, either on paper or in my head. In fact, the few times I've tried a proper outline, it kills the writing totally dead for me. Once I know what happens, there's no fun in writing it at all.

    When I start with a scene or two in my head and sometimes, like you, I'll write them out, though just as often I keep them in my head. The fun is finding out how the characters end up in that scene and what they do to get out of it. So, for one story, the scene I started with was a young man being kidnapped by mistake, in place of his twin brother. That scene ended up about three-quarters of the way through the story, and of course I had to work out why someone wanted to kidnap the brother, and how they came to make the mistake and how the man escaped and so on. Another story I wrote because I wanted to end with an interrupted wedding, in the style of Jane Eyre. It was so much fun writing that story and as I went along thinking of things that would make the final scene even more dramatic.

  6. @ ros

    I'm with you on the best way to get to know the characters. Write them. Write them. Write them. Put them in a scene.

    I'm not saying that planning characters and thinking about them and building profiles and so on isn't useful.
    But when you put them into a scene -- Man, it's the difference between studying a photograph of somebody's cousin and actually meeting them.

    In re outlines --

    I cannot tell you the number of people who've said that knowing the whole story and locking it down in an outline just kills the joy of writing. About a week ago a very good writer indeed was explaining just this to me.

    Which goes to show there are more ways of skinning a cat than a dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.
    Or something.

    Anyhow -- while this is not my way of doing things it is obviously the modus operendi of a large segment of writers. I wonder if folks who feel this way have any particular kind of plots they favor.

    Thing is ... when I start writing I have to know how it ends or I can't write. My Maggie, in scene one of Forbidden Rose, is enacting what amounts to the whole story right there in one of those symbolic thingums that are so very literary they make my teeth itch.

    Folks who don't have the ending imagined, maybe write different kinds of plots.

    There's the nitty-gritty of writing, too. For me, an outline and coming up with a list of scenes is a godsend. It breaks an overwhelming task -- writing a manuscript -- into bite-sized, manageable chunks. Knowing the itty-bits will interlock at the end is a great relief.

  7. Interesting. Your way obviously works for you and it makes sense when you say it like that. But if there's one thing that's definitely true it's that we're all different and we all have to find our own way.